"Big Flashy Numbers That Impress Funders"

How one Democratic super-PAC spent $5.2 million in 2020 on online volunteer recruitment that did what, exactly?

Friday, civic designer Libby Falck shared her vision here for bringing human centered design to the world of political organizing, and specifically to how campaigns use tech to engage volunteers. She had some tough things to say about her experience as a field organizer in Wisconsin in 2020 working with a group called Organizing Together.

“Nothing mattered more to me than winning in Wisconsin, and the pandemic presented unprecedented needs that digital organizing was uniquely positioned to answer,” Falck wrote. “Unfortunately, I quickly learned that our leadership team’s top priority was not to support volunteers, but to deliver big, flashy numbers that impress funders. Claims that ‘we crushed those dials’ (regardless of the connection rate or impact of the calls being made) were valued far more than building pathways to help new volunteers discover and engage with our work. As one field organizer put it, ‘You make dials to recruit shifts. You recruit shifts to make dials. The snake eats its own tail and no one wins.’ Building a robust and inclusive volunteer experience was simply not a priority.” 

According to Politico reporters Marc Caputo and Christopher Cadelago, Organizing Together 2020 was the brainchild of Paul Tewes, one of Barack Obama’s former campaign lieutenants. The group launched publicly in January 2020 with a plan to raise $20 million to $60 million to hire “hundreds” of staffers to get working early in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. A blue-chip array of Democratic governors and unions, along with Color of Change and Indivisible joined in the launch, with a political nonprofit called the Strategic Victory Fund acting as the vehicle for funding its efforts. Once the Democratic presidential primary was over, Organizing Together said it would fold its efforts into supporting the party’s nominee.

The idea of getting field organizing going early in battleground states made sense, and as Politico reported, “Buzz around the group has centered on its caliber of early hires. Tewes recruited from a pool of operatives who worked on 2020 campaigns and allied organizations. They include Jane Slusser (formerly the national organizing director for Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach group); Emmy Ruiz and Anatole Jenkins (of Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign); Geoff Burgan (from Beto O’Rourke's presidential and Andrew Gillum’s Florida gubernatorial campaigns); former Obama for Florida chief Ashley Walker; For Our Future's Rich Kotchmar and Amanda Brown Lierman (from the women's outreach group Supermajority).

When Organizing Together launched, I didn’t pay much attention. But Falck’s critique made me curious about what the group actually did. I went looking at its public filings, and one thing stood out. According to the group’s Federal Elections Commission filings, the Strategic Victory Fund only managed to raise $14.8 million in the 2020 cycle, falling short of its stated $20 million goal. More than one-third of that went to a group called 2020 Campaign Services, Inc, which told the FEC the money was for “online volunteer recruitment.”

2020 Campaign Services Inc appears to have had a short life; its website and Facebook page are both gone. But the Internet Archive shows that it had five staff: Paul Tewes, Tanya Bjork, Emmy Ruiz, Rich Kotchmar and Amanda Brown Lierman. “We build organizing infrastructure,” the site read. “We help organizations build community based, volunteer driven campaigns. The company is focused on providing clients with turn-key logistics to get a quality voter contact program off the ground quickly and efficiently.” 

Now, I am not a professional digital campaign strategist, but I’ve hung around enough of them to know that $5,253,438 for online recruitment is a really high number. So I asked a few people in the field for some ballpark estimates. They all agreed that it would be hard to spend that much money for its stated purpose.

One 2020 campaign veteran told me the cost of getting access to the Democratic voter file and the software to utilize it would be about $10,000 per state plus data storage, or roughly $400,000-$500,000 for a nine- to ten-month program for ten states. Organizing Together was focused on just six.

If the group had decided to go big with peer-to-peer texting and done a few passes at it for both recruitment and persuasion, it might have cost about $2 million, this friend told me. Five million only made sense if it was a national program, not just one focused on a few states.

Another source, who helps manage the digital program of one of the country’s largest nonprofit advocacy organizations, said that supporter acquisition typically runs anywhere from $3 to $30 per name, but that if one was targeting specific states or demographics, the cost could be as high as $100 a name. At that rate, Organizing Together could have recruited 50,000 volunteers.

Actually it looks like Organizing Together recruited 1/100th of that number. Slightly more than 400 people list “Organizing Together 2020” on their LinkedIn page. About 300 of those use the title “field organizer.”

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My sources all had a hard time understanding how one could spend $5.2 million on online volunteer recruitment. One said that they could see hiring a few people to run a national program at $50,000 to $150,000 per year, but that the rest would have to somehow be spent on digital ads and/or fancy production of those ads.

According to Facebook’s political ad library, Organizing Together 2020 spent $196,229 on online advertising, running 787 ads. All of those were launched between April and June 2020, paid for by the “We Americans Can Fund” and focused on asking people to sign on to various messages aiming to “hold Trump accountable.” Another group, Wisconsin Organizing Together 2020 spent $21,494 on 22 ads.

I’ve sent several messages to Tewes and his colleagues at 2020 Campaign Solutions, and also to Jane Slusser, who ran the national Organizing Together campaign, asking them for details on how Organizing Together spent the money it raised in 2020. Tewes said he was on vacation and has since not responded to my queries; nor have any of his colleagues.

Unfortunately, this is how dark money works. A lot sloshes around with very little transparency or accountability for how it is utilized. Some may get spent in useful and effective ways; some may go to programs that simply deliver flashy numbers aimed at impressing funders while giving young political hopefuls a line on their resumes. And some may go who knows where. Vacations?

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Odds and Ends

-Heads-up for civic data geeks: The Chicago Health Atlas tracks the “community belonging rate” for the city’s different neighborhoods, with the percentage of adults who say they really feel a part of their neighborhood ranging from 87.2% for Beverly (where the unemployment rate is 4.4%) to 27.7% for Riverdale (where the unemployment rate is more than 30%). I don’t think I’ve seen that indicator measured for any other place in America, or a community atlas anywhere close to as detailed and usable as the Chicago Health Atlas. (h/t Forest Gregg)

-Bad news: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are silencing Kashmiri social media users, often at the request of the Indian government or due to Hindu national trolls, Ifat Gazia, host of the Kashmir Podcast, writes for TechPolicy Press. She’s urging the platforms to do more to “work with groups who are targeted for harassment, censorship and repression, and develop transparent mechanisms of accountability [and to] have individuals or teams that are primarily focused on addressing such issues of suppression of dissident voices.”

-Good news: By requiring that half of New York City’s digital and print advertising be spent on community newspapers and websites, Mayor Bill de Blasio helped dozens of small outlets survive the pandemic, Sarah Bartlett and Julie Sandorf write for the New York Times. “Community publishers are now asking the City Council to institutionalize the advertising policy with legislation, and New York State legislators to adopt an equivalent program for state government spending.” They add, “The federal government has an advertising budget of $5 billion, so a program like New York City’s could provide an enormous boost to community news organizations at a time when local journalism around the country is in crisis.”

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